The Miami Dolphins lost Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena, Calif. on January 30, 1983 and that was a bitter disappointment for coach Don Shula because his plucky team had been trying to recapture the glory of the 1970s for nearly a decade without success. But despite the disappointment, Shula believed his team could return soon because his defense was young and he had a 24-year-old quarterback in David Woodley, who had a couple of seasons earlier broken the team rookie record for completions in a season.
Things were looking up for the Dolphins.
But in less than three months — on April 26, 1983 — Shula selected a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft.
He had Woodley who was young and promising. And he had Don Strock who at the time was perhaps the NFL’s best backup quarterback. The Dolphins had a solid quarterback situation.
But Shula reached for greatness when he gambled (and that’s what it was that day) on picking Dan Marino, out of Pittsburgh, with the 27th selection of the first round.
And just as he was something of a pioneer with situation substitutions and handing over the keys of one of his units to a coordinator, specifically Bill Arnsparger on defense, Shula that day made a move that would later be repeated by other franchises seeking championships.
Shula decided the promise of having a good quarterback wasn’t enough.
He made the reach for a great quarterback.
A generation later, other teams are doing similar.
In 2012, the Seattle Seahawks signed Matt Flynn in free agency ostensibly to fill their starting quarterback job. But in the third round of that year’s draft they selected Russell Wilson anyway.
In 2017, the Kansas City Chiefs had Alex Smith. They had gone to the playoffs three out of four years and Smith had thrown 76 touchdowns passes against 28 interceptions. But the Chiefs jumped from 27th overall in the first round up to the No. 10 spot to draft Patrick Mahomes II.
These moves by teams with seemingly solid quarterback situations harkened back to Shula’s attempt at greatness. These moves were done by teams not content with merely solid quarterback play.
Teams moving up to get their quarterbacks
Teams that study their rosters and results and decide they need a great quarterback are obviously going to go get them. And they often do radical things to accomplish the feat.
In 2016 the Philadelphia Eagles studied a previously little known quarterback out of North Dakota State named Carson Wentz. And they loved the guy. And it didn’t matter to them that by draft day everyone — except maybe the Cleveland Browns — seemed to understand Wentz was going to be really good.
The Eagles decided they wanted Wentz in the worst way. So off they went.
They had already traded up from the No. 12 overall spot in the first round to the No. 8 overall spot by sending linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell to Miami.
Then they vaulted from No. 8 to No. 2 by sending Cleveland three top 100 picks in ‘16, their first round pick in 2017, their first rounder in 2016, and a second rounder in ‘18. And they got Wentz.
That same year, the Los Angeles Rams, holding the No. 15 pick in the draft, traded all the way up to the No. 1 overall selection in order to pick quarterback Jared Goff.
The Rams sent to the Tennessee Titans their first-round pick in 2016, two second-round picks in 2016, a third-round pick in 2016, a first-round pick 2017 and another third-round pick 2017.
They got Goff and a fourth-rounder in 2016 in exchange. They also got, you know, the chance to go 11-5 last season and start 8-0 this season.
Speaking of this season, the Buffalo Bill last April decided they needed a quarterback. And sitting at No. 12 overall in the first round — one spot behind the Dolphins — the Bills traded with Tampa Bay to leap to No. 7 overall.
The Bills traded away two second-round picks to get to No. 7. And, no, Allen has not paid dividends on the investment this season. But by all reports out of Buffalo, he has done nothing to suggest he won’t be the franchise quarterback he was selected to be at some point in the future.
A different approach by the Dolphins
So why are you getting this history lesson in quarterback acquisition?
Why are you hearing about how the legendary Don Shula wouldn’t settle for merely a solid QB, and thus setting an example for others? Why are you hearing that teams that lack great quarterbacks move heaven and earth on draft day — sometimes using the Dolphins, often times leaping over the Dolphins — to get to those quarterbacks?
Because the Dolphins have Ryan Tannehill.
And he’s in his seventh NFL season. And even though he is injured (again) and has never been elite through three general managers and three head coaches, the Dolphins have remained resolute that he is their guy.
Ownership has fully backed Tannehill and been close to certain Tannehill is going to be great. Don’t believe me, but rather read for yourself:
“I mean, I really believe in Ryan, probably like nobody else in the organization,” Ross told reporters at the March 2018 NFL annual meeting, the last time he has spoken to the media on the record.
“Well, hopefully they have the same belief, but I think he can be outstanding and I think you haven’t seen the best of Ryan Tannehill yet. With the (knee) injury, you really have to look at it and talk to doctors and you have to accept what they’re saying. I think they feel very comfortable. I feel comfortable with it. I look forward to really seeing what Ryan can really perform.”
The owner has been all in on Tannehill. The head coach has been all in on Tannehill. The general manager has been all in on Tannehill. The executive vice president for football operations has been all in on Tannehill.
The Dolphins landed on Tannehill Island and burned their landing craft behind them, as one astute friend recently said.
And on Tuesday when the NFL trade deadline passed and Tannehill remained on the Dolphins it was just another example of the commitment and belief the team has in him.
Indeed, per a club source, there was no significant discussion at high levels of the organization about trying to trade Tannehill. The contrary it seems.
The Dolphins are fully focused on getting Tannehill healthy again — although out of an abundance of caution among other things it was still unlikely late Tuesday evening Tannehill would play against the New York Jets on Sunday.
The Dolphins are hoping Tannehill can nonetheless be back soon enough that he can regain control of the offense and do what he does.
And here’s the curious part …
Don’t these people have eyes?
Don’t these people know what has happened the past six years?
Ryan Tannehill is not elite
Because what Tannehill does is play … OK.
Tannehill is not a bad quarterback. That must be said. Although he has a career passer rating of 86.8, he’s lately a 93 passer rating quarterback. But in a league that has curtailed what defenses can do to both the quarterback and receivers, a 93 quarterback rating lands Tannehill behind 18 or 19 other quarterbacks.
So he’s merely mediocre relative to the competition.
Except the Dolphins keep treating him like he’s elite.
In 2015, after Tannehill failed to get the Dolphins in the playoffs his first three seasons and a year after then-head coach Joe Philbin already wanted to draft Derek Carr, the Dolphins signed Tannehill to a four-year contract extension worth $77 million in new money.
At the time, Tannehill was a middle of the pack quarterback, more or less as he is today. But Mike Tannenbaum, for one, made the point that Tannehill “checked a lot of boxes,” including being a hard worker, a great leader, and an ascending player.
Other people within the Dolphins organization spoke of how Tannehill was worth the new money because that was the price of doing business to have a good quarterback, and the new deal allowed the Dolphins to exit with little pain after three seasons. This made sense to me back then so I endorsed it.
Except the pain was just starting.
The Dolphins were a mess once the 2015 season began. Philbin got fired. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor got fired. General manager Dennis Hickey got fired. The entire organization was on fire.
And while Rome burned, Tannehill threw 24 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. He was the NFL’s 21st rated passer.
The Dolphins hired Adam Gase as the new coach in January of 2016 and his marching orders were to, first, put out the fires. He then had to set the Dolphins’ offense right and make sure the quarterback position was right.
And after much deliberation and film study. Gase decided Tannehill was his guy.
Here’s the problem with that: Gase could have ordered a total rebuild of the organization if he’d wanted to. No one would have denied him permission.
But he decided that wasn’t needed, especially not at quarterback. So while the Rams mortgaged themselves for Jared Goff and the Eagles used the Dolphins as a stepping stone for their leap to Carson Wentz, the Dolphins actually decided the best way to get better quarterback play was to draft a left tackle.
They didn’t replace Tannehill, rather, in the span of one year the Dolphins made Tannehill more secure financially and on his blind side.
Except Tannehill blew out a knee in December.
The following spring, the Dolphins had a not-elite quarterback who had suffered 207 career sacks and hadn’t had surgery on his torn ACL. So did the team draft a quarterback to protect their interests this time — just in case?
You know the answer.
And the Dolphins can argue they weren’t in position to draft a QB because a playoff run the previous year had slotted them with the No. 22 overall selection in the first round of the draft.
Except as you read up there somewhere, the Chiefs drafted Mahomes. And they were behind the Dolphins at No. 27 when that draft began. But they vaulted up for a chance at a great quarterback to replace their good quarterback.
(The Houston Texans also started that draft day behind the Dolphins, at No. 25 overall, but they also vaulted up the board to No. 12 to pick Deshaun Watson).
So the Dolphins went into the 2017 still believing in Tannehill. And then Tannehill suffered the second of his ACL blowout episodes. And he did not play at all that season. Not exactly a good reward for the confidence the team showed in him.
Well, fool me once shame on you, etc, etc …
This is the point I started looking at this situation sideways. It was clear, I thought, the Dolphins would do what was necessary to draft a quarterback in the spring of 2018. Right?
Dolphins ride or die with Tannehill
Yeah, shame on the Miami Dolphins.
This past spring, with a 30-year-old not-elite quarterback on their roster, the Dolphins didn’t recall what Don Shula did in 1983 after he went to the Super Bowl. The team didn’t study what Andy Reid and the Chiefs did the year before or the Eagles and Rams did two years before.
Draft day came and there had been talk within the organization of possibly landing Allen. The Dolphins liked only Baker Mayfield and Allen in the first round.
And Allen was within reach. And there were voices within the organization that hoped the Dolphins could make a move for Allen.
But with Chris Grier running the draft with apparent consensus from the entire braintrust, the Dolphins stood pat at No. 11 while the Bills, just behind them at No. 12, vaulted up to No. 7 to pick Allen.
And, again, Allen may not ever be any good.
But the Bills and all of Western New York have hope Allen is the future.
Do the Dolphins and all of South Florida have hope Tannehill is the future?
Want the crazy part? The answer is yes.
No, not the South Florida part. South Florida has eyes and understands the stark difference between solid and elite quarterback play. South Florida is increasingly voting no and before I’m done it will be a resounding no.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, continue to operate as if Tannehill is the future.
This past offseason not only did the Dolphins not draft a potential replacement for the quarterback who had turned 30 and had never been to the playoffs and was coming off a season on injured reserve with his second ACL injury, they actually made it harder on themselves to get rid of him.
When former GM Dennis Hickey and cap specialist Dawn Aponte wrote Tannehill’s second contract in 2015, all the sides understood it would be easy for the Dolphins to move on from Tannehill after the 2018 season.
Tannehill agent Pat Dye Jr. told reporters as much at the press conference announcing the deal. And the numbers confirmed it once the details of the contract became public.
Except this past year the Dolphins changed that original contract. And the change makes it more painful for the Dolphins to get rid of Tannehill after this season.
Tannenbaum, part of the braintrust that is fully on board with Tannehill, restructured the quarterback’s contract last March 14. That restructure moved approximately $16.7 million of Tannehill’s original 2018 salary to a guaranteed bonus.
The move saved the Dolphins $11 million in cap space this year which the team needed. But that money didn’t disappear. The move thrust an extra $5.5 million onto Tannehill’s 2019 salary cap number and another $5.5 million onto his 2020 cap number.
What does this mean?
That Tannehill’s original $21.05 million cap number for next year ballooned to $26.5 million. And that makes cutting Tannehill next offseason more financially painful for the Dolphins. Which, in turn, gives Tannehill more of a chance of sticking around.
What could have been an $18.75 million cap savings with $7.8 million left in dead money on a pre-June 1 cut now would be only a $13.1 million savings with $13.4 million left behind in dead money.
The Dolphins were so certain Tannehill was going to be great this season, they not only said it multiple times at every level of the organization, they put their money on the line as well.
They wagered part of the team’s fiscal future on it.
So when history has shown smart football people — including Don Shula — going in the exact opposite direction with how to handle a quarterback situation, today’s Dolphins decided to ride or die with their not-great quarterback.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero